Adventures in the Archives: Colic and Fatherhood

Welcome to the third installment of our regular feature, “Adventures in the Archives!”
In this reoccurring series, Nursing Clio bloggers will share interesting finds in the archives and ask our readers for feedback, ideas, and analysis. It’s just like you’re sitting in the dusty archives with us!

While researching in the archives, I have learned to expect the unexpected.  Several times I read letters containing humorous anecdotes leading me to laugh out loud in the middle of a quiet setting, and yes, a few times I have danced a small jig in my chair when I found the perfect bit of evidence.  I have also learned useful tips, such as using the microfilm machine to warm my cold hands and make my blue fingernails appear flesh colored again or befriending the archivist to make for a productive and pleasant research trip. More than once, I have forced myself to stay on topic rather than go on tangent after tangent after tangent, but, with experience, I have realized there are times when a researcher should allow for stray thoughts to enter into his/her work.

Recently, I was pouring over a manuscript collection.  This particular piece was a memorandum book from 1894.  Each page held records of transactions by an African-American farmer from Louisiana as well as advertisements for “medical” treatments hailed to cure everything from fatigue to cancer.  Perhaps I initially overlooked the ads given the current age in which so much- from internet sites to calendars- contain flashy messages from a particular business, but one sheet captured my interest.

The advertisement by Dr. M.A. Simmons Liver Medicine promised to treat colic (a condition that still drives parents to try nearly any possible cure).  A large picture with a tired father holding an unhappy infant took up most of the page.  In the background, the mother slept undisturbed, and underneath, it contained the words, “Many midnight hours find a multitude of tired fathers walking the floor with screaming babies who are in agony with colic….It is enough to tempt the father in the household similar to the one illustrated above to turn in the Home Sweet Home inscription….” Of course, like most “medicines” of the late 1800s, testimonials from satisfied customers graced the bottom of the ad to attest to the product’s effectiveness.

I snickered at the joke given I am a survivor of a child who suffered from three months of incurable colic, but the picture intrigued me.  This portrayal of a father of the late 1800s being responsible for a sick child while his wife slept clashed with gender norms of the time, especially expectations for mothers.  Involved fatherhood had not yet come into full swing by 1894, and most medicines, particularly those for children, appealed to a female audience.  So, I post these questions to you loyal readers: why would this advertisement have been considered typical and effective given what is generally known about the period?  Maybe the memorandum book was distributed to men, and since crying children keep most of the household awake, fathers would be prompted to buy the product?  Or maybe fatherhood was in transition already?  Let me know your thoughts!

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Laura Ping

I have no idea! The mother also appears to sleeping peacefully and has a half smile on her face. My first thought would be because the father controls the money, but that does not explain why the whole household isn’t awake. Curious!

Emily Gilkey

Maybe it is soon after the baby is born and the mother is in recovery? Perhaps there were situations in which women were NOT supposed to be with their babies (trying to wean, recovering from birth) but in households where there were no servants to do the work this meant the father had to be there? The father will be strong, and will not yield to inappropriate but well-intentioned impulses (nursing when you’re trying to wean?) I genuinely have no idea.

R simmons McGinnis

Wow! Dr.MA Simmons was my great-great-great grandfather, and I’ve collected info about his business for my father over the past few years. Could you email me a picture of that page with all the text included? I would SO appreciate it!

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